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Advertise on the Tentacle

May 9, 2006

Why the First Saturday Fiasco?

Roy Meachum

The day after May's First Saturday Gallery Walk, a letter to the editor appeared in The Frederick News-Post, written by the director of Environmental Health for the Frederick County Health Department. His name is Larry Bohn.

While replying to critics, Mr. Bohn explained clearly the source of the brouhaha between downtown merchants and his department. The sponsor of the popular monthly event, the Downtown Frederick Partnership, provided absolutely no leadership!

Although she was given warning in November, DFP Executive Director Kara Norman does not bear the blame; it was lifted from her shoulders, according to Mr. Bohn's letter, when the organization's president, Brewer's Alley owner Phil Bowers, failed to communicate with the participating merchants that health inspectors would be out for February's First Saturday.

That failure crippled the three-year-old celebration of this historic city, in a way that obviously wasn't anticipated. First, some background.

No one could have possibly anticipated the roaring success of what began as an evening that the city's art galleries and dealers stayed open late. It was, as I informed recently, April's first Saturday, in 2003.

The exact date might be wrong, but living on North Market Street Pushkin and I felt the impact, almost immediately. Attracted by clever promotion and astute advertising, hundreds of visitors turned up.

Since no one has claimed credit and memory does not record the obvious, even in those first days, snacks and tidbits appeared, to encourage potential customers to hang around, anything more than in-and-out. Eventually, virtually all participants set out something; a sort of competition developed and some spreads became rather grand, complete with hot and cold finger food, accompanied by wine.

By then, which is to say over the last year, the hundreds had swollen to thousands. So many that on those Saturdays, when the weather cooperated, the English pointer had trouble walking among all those legs; finally, he stayed home.

Everybody seemingly profited; even the government got its share, in the form of more and more taxes paid into the city, county and state coffers.

As the retail trade goes, merchants had an up-and-down relationship with the celebration. But as I learned in following days, when Pushkin strolled the neighborhood, store owners measured First Saturdays against each other, no other single-day, non-holiday sales could compare.

As for downtown restaurants, reservations were tight and grew tighter over the years; when tables were not available, customers crowded the bars, vying for the choice standing spaces.

As I said, First Saturday Gallery Walk became a "roaring success," which played a significant role in winning the national Great American Main Street Award; that was in May, 2005.

One year ago exactly, everybody involved with the monthly promotion deserved all the praise pouring in: competing with every community and organization in the Baltimore and Washington metro areas, they had made Frederick into a major attraction! Bravo!

In Yiddish, there is a phrase that translates roughly: Let no one hear. It is said on occasions when compliments are lauded upon human beings. The "no one" refers to some 40,000 flying demons that hover in corners, waiting to attack any one praised.

In the event, maybe the great success was the undoing of First Saturday Gallery Walk. Obviously the Downtown Frederick Partnership and its supporters couldn't recognize the implications of the health department's announced intention to license and inspect all those goodies merchants put out.

It seems from here that no one involved in First Saturdays paid attention to what happened to Bob Rosensteel's Evening on the Riviera.

The community's most important civic fund-raiser relied entirely on its capability of enlisting restaurants. Samplings from their menus were provided, solely in exchange for publicity and access to those who bought tickets.

All the Evenings' other lures relied on the food, even the (donated) wine and the (paid) orchestras and performers. The restaurant's menu samples pasted the whole shebang together, raising hundreds of thousands for local charity.

Mr. Rosensteel recently informed me his Evening on the Riviera will not happen next October, ending a 10-year run. He blames the health department, which, he said, placed "unreasonable and restrictive" demands on the restaurants, including a list well in advance of every item to be served.

It's difficult, indeed, to understand why restaurants, which operate under tight health department regulation, should be subject to even tighter regulations. After all, the food servers are professional and they are supervised by professional chefs and managers who must know what the bureaucrats demand, at peril to their profits and careers.

In his letter, Larry Bohn doesn't mention Evening on the Riviera and I understand. One month after last year's near-miss on the gala, he said he began "negotiations" on holding First Saturday to similar requirements; more basic, to be sure.

When asked why now, after 10 years producing the Evening on the Riviera, Mr. Rosensteel was told there had been a complaint; downtown merchants were given an identical reply for why their three-old-old event was suddenly subject to health department licensing and fees.

In the event, I am told Downtown Frederick Partnership decided the new order was none of its concern; officials were told all the stores were on their own. I am mystified how the Partnership can wash its hands of an important detail that has been an integral part of First Saturday Gallery Walk from the start.

At the very least, the organizer of the monthly event should have alerted the merchants, which Mr. Bohn said was not done. Word did filtrate among downtown establishments, creating confusion, withdrawal and anger.

After all, business people are highly individualistic. A combination of ideas and leadership could not alone make First Saturdays successful: enthusiastic cooperation was needed all the way down the line.

About this past weekend I have heard of only one downtown store visited by Mr. Bohn's inspector who was refused admission without a search warrant, which sounds suspiciously like an attorney has entered the mess.

Before the situation deteriorates further, the Downtown Frederick Partnership must pick up the dropped initiative. Otherwise it takes no magic crystal to foresee Saturday Night Gallery Walk will continue to deteriorate.

Larry Bohn and I agree: If the monthly event disappears, he and his department are not to blame, although the manner of handling complaints from unidentified citizens strikes me as overzealous bureaucracy.

As in the case of banning hot dogs from the local bank's branch baseball-opening party could have been avoided by a phone call telling the manager he needed a license, a condition I was told that none of the other Maryland branches faced.

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